We recently talked about tactics, the mix of marketing variables like price and brand communication which you will use to implement your strategy. Now is time to be more specific by talking about a few of the research methods you can use.

The focus group

Focus groups are typically groups of 5 to 10 consumers gathered together for a candid discussion of some topic product issue or even political candidate. Typically focus groups will consist of just customers who are in the target segment.

Focus groups can be a very expensive way to gather information about all possible customer segments they tend to work better for narrowly defined targets. Focus groups have a discussion leader, either someone from the marketing team or a professional focus group leader who guides the customer group through a series of questions or tasks.

If the focus group was convened to discuss a product there may be samples there for the group to experience and react to. Historically, focus groups have been held in conference rooms often with a one-way mirror where interested parties can silently watch the proceedings.

More recently it’s become common to conduct these in less formal settings like someone’s home or even online using videoconferencing software
focus groups are a great method for seeking clarification on some particular idea or question.

In other words focus groups are most effective when they are well focused. In this way focus groups are conceptually similar to surveys. In both cases consumers are asked a specific set of questions to gain insight into a particular set of topics.


Focus groups are inferior to surveys and that the results tend to be less generalizable. After all you’re getting input from only a tiny fraction of those customers be would typically reach with the survey

But, focus groups are superior to surveys in the depth of the information you can get off participants. Focus groups delve deep, they allow for follow-up questions and more detailed explanations. But, both surveys and focus groups are limited in that they are primarily guided by the researcher.

The marketer decides which questions to ask in which topics to cover. In this way surveys and focus groups tend to be bound by the limits of the marketers imagination. It can be hard to discover radically new and surprising insights if you have to define all the questions that will be asked.

Customer observation

This method just involves watching and listening to customers. The advantage of using observations over surveys or focus groups where you know you just ask people what they’re doing and why is that people don’t always know the things that they’re doing.

Sometimes you can find out some surprising and surprisingly useful things about your customers sometimes things they didn’t even know about. Wherever your customer is purchasing or consuming your product or service you can observe them. Just watch and listen and see how they choose those offerings.

Typically this research is conducted formally with a dedicated research team intentionally observing with the goal of generating customer insights as opposed to just you know occasionally asking your employees what they’ve noticed customers doing.

Observational researchers take careful notes immediately when possible soon after observation when not and the research teams tend to meet frequently to compare notes and look for insights. The most valuable insights are those that apply to a large group of customers. In this era of increased electronic surveillance many firms can also use observational techniques on recordings of customer interactions.

The ethnography

Another more interactive form of observational qualitative research is the ethnography. Ethnographies are a research tool developed by cultural anthropologists to understand the cultures traditions behaviors and beliefs of groups of people.

Have you ever watched a documentary about a group of researchers probably wearing khaki vests in the pith helmet that go out to some indigenous tribe in the mountainous jungles of a remote island and live among the people for several months trying to become integrated into the tribe and accepted by them

Ethnographies and marketing are kind of like that except instead of an aboriginal tribe it’s a group of Harley-Davidson riders or a suburban book club or people cleaning the bathrooms or cooking a Thanksgiving dinner. The idea behind ethnographies is that your customers are members of a culture that’s alien and misunderstood by those outside the group.

These outsiders include the marketing managers are making decisions about the products and services they’re trying to sell to this group. By treating your customers like members of an exotic culture you’re free to ask stupid questions and hopefully to see things in an entirely new light.

I should stop at this point to emphasize ethnography is not simply observation
ethnography is known as participant observation. You’re not just observing the tribe of consumers you’re trying to have that experience for yourself, to become a part of that tribe a friend of mine who does this type of research refers to it as deep hanging out.

Projective techniques

In addition to customer observations focus groups and ethnographies there are a number of projective techniques that fit into this broad category of qualitative research.

The basic theory behind projective techniques is that sometimes people are guarded and what they will tell you about a product a brand or an experience in asking indirect questions can sometimes reveal more about a person’s true thoughts and feelings then you can get by asking them directly.

There are various well documented self-report biases that you run into when asking people directly about their own preferences or behavior. Whether because of self presentation concerns or simple forgetfulness people were dramatically underreporting the amount of food they were consuming to the point of the food consumption data they were reporting was biologically impossible.

Some of the self reporting concerns can be reduced if you ask people not about their own behavior but about the behavior of others and that’s where the projective techniques come in. We call them projective because you are essentially asking people to project their thoughts and feelings onto another person or to represent them in an unfamiliar medium.

The simplest form of projective technique is to ask consumers “what the typical consumer would think or feel or do in a particular situation”. Very few people would be willing to admit that they overeat or that they neglects to floss every night but many more would be willing to admit that the typical person does those things.

Sometimes people can be strangely reluctant to critique things directly, but asked him about a hypothetical person based on information that makes it harder to know what the researcher is really trying to get at, surprisingly people can really open up.

Another slightly less crazy projective technique comes in the form of sitting your customers down in a room and giving them a stack of magazines. You then invite them to click pictures from the magazines and make collages that represent a particular product or brand or experience.

Once customers have projected their thoughts and feelings into this bizarre medium of clipart collage you can go through the images and ask them what each means. The collage becomes a springboard for discussing ideas and feelings the consumer may not otherwise have been able to articulate.

The data collected in this manner can be harder to interpret the simple survey response but there’s also the chance that you’ll find something radically new and innovative. But projective techniques need not rely on elementary school level arts and crafts projects in order to be effective.

There are really no hard and fast rules for developing projective techniques
this is an opportunity to get creative. Think of new and different ways of getting people to project their opinions through indirect means. Ask them to compare brands in a category to animals.

Ask them which brand they would vote for for president or which they would want as a roommate. Ask them to describe the typical user of a product or service. The sky is the limit.